Updated April 1, 2023
While gazing at the creaky empty rooms of Crimson Peak, Thomas notes that “A house as old as this one becomes, in time, a living thing”, capable of emotion, capable of trauma. The film, Crimson Peak, goes on to suggest that this house, and the words used to describe it, are just as traumatized as its inhabitants. They are all stuck in this horrific pattern, unable to move on from the past, just repeating the same violence with Thomas’ various brides. Everything is decaying, with no signs of repair. Marriages, bodies, the building. The only change or transformation that happens is the still rotting of whatever enters the house. Ghosts are different. Ghosts are never just decaying or dead- they are something more than what they were. Not alive, but not entirely dead, as they still have an identity and will. And as the film demonstrates, that adaptability, the very fact that they can eventually move on, is what distinguishes them from the living and traumatized.
Shortly after her mother’s death, a young Edith hears a strange noise in her bedroom hallway but is too afraid to turn around. Her mother appears in a long veil which covers marks of decay and typhoid desecration. She glides across the hallway, reaching one gnarled hand towards her daughter, and as she wraps her fingers across Edith’s shoulder, she groans “Beware of Crimson Peak” and then vanishes. These words haunt Edith, much like the literal specter of her mother. It’s as though the words are hiding under her tongue, held down and never spoken of, but still there, waiting to finally be discussed. Crimson Peak is not simply a place, it’s a haunted phrase. The words themselves are ghostly; crimson sounds like a plush and violent shade while peak refers to an edge or loud crescendo. The film itself, and Edith’s anxiety, is defined by this first ghost, both Edith’s mother and her words. But unlike the ghosts we traditionally find in horror stories, Edith’s mother isn’t tormenting her – she is warning her. The film eventually suggests that the living are diseased and demented, and that ghosts are relatively harmless. In fact, while Edith is the only one who sees ghosts, she is not the only haunted person in the film. Thomas and Lucille are stuck in the sickly and violent patterns we typically associate with ghosts. They haunt themselves.
“It’s a world of everything dying and eating each other right beneath our feet.”
Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak is equally focused on love and horror, and the bizarre overlap between those extreme terms. It’s the perfect Gothic film, as although it is an original story, it makes multiple references to other Gothic works and tropes. The dead mother, for instance, appears in countless Gothic tales, most notably in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Much like Edith in Crimson Peak, Victor is visited by his decaying mother. Victor, however, completely disregards his mother’s warning as he isn’t interested in morality or consequences. He and Edith experience similar events but interpret them in vastly different ways. Like Frankenstein, however, Crimson Peak includes (spoiler alert) incest, which is another disturbing fixture of Gothic literature. What decaying mothers and incest have in common is a deeply traumatized sense of family, or simply put, these characters have no roots or security. They have no support network, as whatever family unit they had has been utterly perverted. These distorted family also multiply in Gothic works, sort of like a disease. For example, Thomas and Lucille try to isolate Edith by killing her father. By losing her father, Edith loses her support network and sense of home. She marries Thomas because she feels vulnerable and wants to create a new home. This opens her up to a perverted family. Once she discovers that her new home already has a mistress, and is a dangerous place, an old friend arrives to help her escape. He embodies a new support network, not necessarily a romantic kind, just a more trustworthy kind.
The most striking difference between Crimson Peak and other Gothic works is its heroine. Edith is an independent and intelligent Gothic author, who is already aware of the conventions associated with ghost stories. She can see the dead, and she can also write about them, which implies that supernatural and linguistic systems are somewhat connected, meaning they operate in similar ways. Ghosts spread into the very terms which are used to describe them, like the words “Crimson Peaks” haunting Edith. This means that an author’s inspiration is akin to possession. The act of reading would also be a type of possession, of putting yourself into a different person’s perspective. And that feverish research is exactly what Edith does when she realizes that Crimson Peak is the name of her new home. Newspaper articles and ghosts provide the same amount of information, and she treats both ghosts and information as sources, like clues in one of her novels. But to truly discover what happened at Crimson Peak, Edith must close read her situation using the very Gothic archetypes her writing implements.
“At Home We only have black moths. Formidable creatures…they thrive on the dark and cold.”
Edith might be involved in a Gothic story, but she is also a conscious observer. She doesn’t understand exactly what is going on, and yet, she recognizes the importance of certain themes and events, even butterflies. There are multiple butterfly scenes in the film, Edith’s dog is even a papillon, French for butterfly. Traditionally, butterflies are a metaphor for rebirth and transformation, as the caterpillar transforms itself into something entirely different. That reading is certainly found in the film, but there is also a sinister quality to del Toro’s butterflies. In one notable scene, we see a beautiful butterfly trampled and devoured by a hoard of tiny ants. We see the butterfly shaking as the ants chew on its wings, leaving little holes in what was once colourful and bright. The film goes on to argue that the butterflies’ vivid colouring attracts predators. Lucille suggests as much during her conversation with Edith, before they travel to Crimson Peak. She notes that her home mainly gets dark moths because butterflies die so quickly. This is clearly a jab at Edith, who is dressed in colourful clothing, but it also foreshadows the later twist in the film. Lucille implies that Edith is too pretty and naïve to see the trap being set around her. Unlike Edith, Lucille is a dark moth, adaptable and hidden. But she is also an ant, or even an entomologist, ready to vivisect the pretty butterfly and consign her body to some dark corner of Crimson Peak.
The film goes on to trouble Lucille’s reading, as Edith proves a capable and resilient figure. She might stand out, as the butterfly does, but that doesn’t mean she is a victim. Her fluttering presence in Crimson Peak brings dead tongues to life, as the ghosts of Thomas’ other wives come to warn her. Edith repeats the steps of Bluebeard’s wives as she doesn’t know who to trust or what horrors she might uncover behind the locked canisters in the basement or in the nursery upstairs. But because she understands the Gothic systems underlying her situation, she has some advantages. She is essentially informed by two similar bodies. First, the literal body, or the ghosts of Thomas’ other wives. Second, the body of Gothic literature which she is familiar with. Combined, Edith can defeat Lucille and Thomas, and eventually escape. Like any Gothic tale, Edith is traumatized by her experience, and yet, there is hope that she can move on with her life. That is what makes her different than her sister-in-law, as unlike Edith, Lucille stuck in a pattern. She has played this game of marriage and murder so many times that she cannot escape from it, nor from her childhood trauma. The last time we see Lucille, her ghost is totally black and is once again playing the piano, as though nothing has changed. Thomas’ ghost was white and dissolves after a final moment with Edith. This contrast suggests that Lucille refuses to move on and will always be a fixture of Crimson Peak.
“It’s an Excellent Likeness.”
It’s strange to say now, but I wasn’t a huge fan of Crimson Peak the first time I saw it. It was the first del Toro film I saw in theatres, knowing who del Toro was. I had seen his other work, but I had not made the connection between them until right before Crimson Peak was released. I ended up with huge expectations about the film, just based on del Toro’s other incredible projects. There was no way the film could live up to those expectations, especially as its quite different from del Toro’s other films. Today, however, it’s one of my favourite del Toro pictures, but it took multiple screenings to really appreciate that. My turning point was that I eventually became more familiar with the Gothic genre and realized just how expertly the film incorporates it. I would argue that knowing other Gothic works, or at least recognizing these older tropes, is crucial for the film. Crimson Peak extends its genre while still being an accurate Gothic romance. In fact, it’s arguably one of the greatest examples of period authentic Gothic romance, authentic to these texts at least.
One thing I was initially disappointed about was the film’s ‘big twist’; that Thomas and Lucille are having an affair and have been killing Thomas’ wives to finance their mining invention. Going into the film, I thought the twist would be more complicated. I kept hoping that the incest murder plot was a red herring, and that the film would reveal something more. I just assumed Thomas and Lucille had a romantic relationship based on the trailer and their first scene, so it never felt like a reveal. But after more screenings, I realized that it wasn’t meant to be a reveal. If you have read some early Gothic works, like Ann Radcliffe’s novels, you know that they are generally ridiculous and a tad formulaic. Much like today’s romantic comedies, if you have read one, you already know what will happen in another. The same tropes and narrative beats appear in multiple texts, so much so, that you could list a bunch of tropes and then find countless texts which rely on them.
Gothic works generally include a dark haunted building, often in disrepair. They feature a beautiful woman with a mysterious childhood and a precarious family, like an overbearing brother or father, maybe even husband. Incest is also a feature, although it’s generally just implied rather than explicit. They also take place in a glamourized recent past, an era which doesn’t exist anymore but is still familiar. Crimson Peak implements these and other tropes, and as a result, it has a familiar plot. It even reuses a famous scene from Jane Eyre, where Rochester tells Jane that “it is as if I had a string somewhere under my left ribs, tightly and inextricably knotted to a similar string…in the quarter of your little frame.. [if this] cord of communion will be snapt…I’ve a nervous notion I should take to bleeding inwardly”. Thomas uses a remarkably similar image, when he tells Edith, “I feel as if a link exists between your heart and mine and should that link be broken…then my heart would cease to beat and I would die”. It is the same language Charlotte Brontë used but repurposed in a contemporary ghost film. It is even possible that Thomas is consciously referring to Brontë’s work to frame his relationship with Edith like as Rochester and Jane’s, knowing that Edith will pick up on this reference. This is just one example of how the characters in Crimson Peak actively return to famous Gothic works to characterize situations in a specific way.
Gothic literature takes something familiar and makes it strange. It presents a slightly formulaic and dramatic premise and then finds unique horror within every feature and body. Crimson Peak does that too, as it creates a style and terror that is utterly astonishing. People often talk about the fashion and design of this film, and I think that ties into this Gothic tradition of transforming something outdated into something new and fantastic. The plot itself isn’t surprising, but its appearance is. The ghost scenes are a great example of this, as they are genuinely terrifying, and they move in a unique way. Ghosts rise out of the floor and drag themselves towards Edith, as though the house is spitting them up. The hauntings themselves might be predictable, but the way in which appear is not.
“Souls Come and Go.”
Once you let go of the ‘big twist’ expectation, you find so many interesting things about Crimson Peak. I really love the mourning fashion in the film, everything from the black band Edith wears on her arm after her mother dies to her intricate two hand belt. Mourning was a strange thing for the Victorians, it was a culture which openly announced itself. I published a paper some years ago (2018) on Victorian post-mortem photography, and these photos are how I understand the Victorian era today. I hope you bear with me on this strange tangent, I swear it is relevant. A subset of Victorian society would take photographs of recently deceased family members as though they were still alive. This had two functions. First, it was often the only photograph a person would have in their lifetime (or deathtime), and so the family wanted something they could remember the dead by. A large portion of these photos are of young children, whose families wanted some evidence that the person had existed. They were often propped up to look like they were sleeping, a phenomenon now referred to as the ‘sleeping beauty’ pose. Any signs of decay or disease were covered up to preserve the person as they were. Second, some Victorians believed that the camera could capture part of the soul (our shadow), and that having a photograph meant that you could literally hold onto a person. Photographs were initially treated like ghosts, as they feature an ageless version of the subject, unchanging and beyond mortality. The photo outlives the subject, and that is a rather unnerving situation. Crimson Peak returns to that logic, as its plot is familiar but again, there is something off about it, something disturbing happening within the very folds of the narrative. A strong familiarity to it, like these photos, yet capturing something else, another meaning, within that familiarity.
Crimson Peak is a haunted film, haunted by Gothic linguistics and trope. Occasionally, the ghosts of these earlier works rear in del Toro’s film, transformed but still a familiar fixture. Just as Edith is haunted by specters of the past, the film itself is tied to a language and genre, one whose creators are long dead but ever present.
I am going to focus on Romance films throughout February. My goal is to examine how this genre operates and the politics it creates in film. Tune in for an ongoing discussion on idealization, humour, and of course, love.